A state agency that investigates attorney misconduct wants the Missouri Supreme Court to suspend for one year a Columbia public defender for inadequately representing six of his clients. Karl Hinkebein says he suffers from chronic health issues and was dealing with an excessive caseload.

Missouri Supreme Court considers suspension for public defender with health issues, heavy caseload

Attorney Alan Pratzel, who’s representing the Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, says Hinkebein neglected the cases.

“The respondent failed to review appropriate records, failed to adequately communicate with his clients and failed to complete investigations of their cases,” says Pratzel.

He says Hinkebein’s health problems cannot be an exception to the rule.

“What about just any attorney who has a lot of clients? Are we going to carve out an exception or even take into account the fact that they are carrying this caseload,” asks Pratzel. “We cannot do that because it does become a very slippery slope.”

The office wants Hinkebein to be suspended for one year before he can apply for reinstatement. His attorney, Sara Rittman, says the move would be excessive.

“He knew that he had these cases but he also had hundreds of other cases he was handling properly,” says Rittman. “The informant is arguing for you to jump from admonition to full on suspension. There’s a lot of room in between there for progressive discipline.”

The state’s 370 public defenders handle more than 80,000 cases annually for clients who cannot afford an attorney.

“It involves an attorney who was physically broken working in a system that’s broken. He had no control over his caseload,” says Rittman. “Perhaps he should’ve said something. The evidence says that wouldn’t have made a difference.”

The court has not ruled on the case.